The Sanctuary Cities Debate

Data shows foreign born less likely to be incarcerated

By Assistant Professor Angela S. García

(This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of SSA Magazine.)

The incarceration rate for young, foreign-born males is 1.6 percent compared to 3.3 percent for native born.

Sanctuary cities are not new. Today's efforts to limit the use of local police in enforcing federal immigration law are rooted in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, during which religious organizations declared themselves safe havens for Central Americans fleeing violence and civil war. Since 1989, San Francisco's sanctuary city policy has prohibited local police from stopping or arresting individuals based on national origin or immigration status and has barred assistance to federal immigration authorities unless legally required. A similar policy in Los Angeles dates back to 1979. Details vary from place to place, but most major cities in the United States have some form of sanctuary policy, including Chicago, San Diego, New York, Philadelphia, and Houston.

Following the July 2015 shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, for which an undocumented immigrant with a long criminal history faces murder charges, sanctuary cities have become a controversial part of the national conversation around immigration and crime. The current debate asks whether sanctuary cities offer refuge to hard working undocumented communities or to hardened undocumented criminals.

Comprehensive immigration reform itself is relatively popular across the United States. In a February 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll, 73 percent of respondents felt Congress should pass a bill that makes comprehensive reforms to immigration policy. The same is not true for sanctuary cities. According to a Rasmussen poll released in July 2015, 62 percent of Americans said they wanted the Justice Department to "take action" against sanctuary cities.

What do the numbers say about immigrants in the United States and crime? Research consistently shows that immigrants are less likely than those born in the US to commit crimes even as the incarceration rates have gone up in the US. Between 1980 and 2005, the number of adults incarcerated in federal or state prisons or in local jails in the United States has gone from just over 500,000 to 2.2 million.

The US Census Bureau reported in 2010 that 13 percent of the country's population of 308,746,000 people, or about 40 million, were foreign born. However, when the American Immigration Council used 2010 Census data to analyze incarceration rates for males between 18 and 39 (since most crimes are committed by males in that age range), it found that 1.6 percent of foreign-born males are in jail, compared with 3.3 percent of the native born population. Similar trends go back to the 1980s.

Nevertheless, in a population of millions, some will violate the law. Given that reality, policy makers face two pressing questions: how police on the street deal with immigration status questions and what jails do when they are about to release an unauthorized immigrant from their custody.

City governments and police chiefs around the country create sanctuary city policies because they believe effective policing requires trust between residents and police. In a national survey of police chiefs in large and medium-sized cities administered in 2007-08, 52 percent of law enforcement officials reported that gaining the trust of undocumented immigrants was a top priority in their departments. An estimated 11.3 million immigrants live in the US in an unauthorized status. Around 9 million others live in families with members of different legal statuses. If this entire population fears that interaction with police leads to arrest and deportation, they will be reluctant to report crimes, make statements, or testify in court. This chilling effect leaves cities less safe for everyone.

How should law enforcement handle undocumented immigrants who have criminal records and are in custody? Closely scrutinizing these immigrants' records before they are released or turned over to federal authorities is critical. Even the line between "felony" and "misdemeanor" does not always meaningfully distinguish between those who pose a danger and those who make good neighbors. An unemployed, rootless young man who stalks his ex-girlfriend and repeatedly tells her he's going to kill her may be convicted of a misdemeanor.

A more nuanced policy would consider evidence-based factors which predict future offenses: the seriousness of the underlying conduct; whether it involves violence; the number of times a person has been arrested; the person’s subsequent rehabilitation—or not—on probation; and the persistence of their criminal offending. Considering these features in the immigration/deportation context would be consistent with the nation's turn to "Smart on Crime" policies in the criminal law, where punishment and treatment are based less on the criminal offense charged and more on behavioral characteristics of the offender. This approach also avoids casting collective blame on an entire immigrant community for the actions committed by a small number of individuals.

As politicians and city leaders debate the sanctuary cities issue, it is important to remember that reducing crime requires setting priorities and making smart choices. In fact, rather than continue to critique sanctuary cities and advance piecemeal policy changes, focusing on comprehensive immigration reforms will enhance community safety far more by ensuring that everyone without a serious criminal record is accounted for and fully documented.

Angela S. García is an assistant professor at SSA.